MAY 8, 2020
In the last few months, millions of people around the globe have found themselves confined to the walls of their homes under the threat of Coronavirus. This condition of isolation is a new experience for many people, but it is not new to those who have lived through similar conditions in the past, oftentimes despite their choice and desire. This includes people with severe disabilities or health conditions, the elderly, refugees, and, of course, the incarcerated. For these individuals, there is a déjà vu moment, often with a sense of sympathy for the scores of the newly afflicted. I am one such individual.
I spent one year of my youth in solitary confinement — 352 days, to be exact — followed by another eighteen months of imprisonment. When I was arrested, I was 28 years old, married, and the father of two small children — a two-year-old and a three-month-old. My arrest took place on Valentine’s Day 1984, three days after the fifth anniversary of the revolution in Iran, two days after my wife’s birthday, and on the same day when my grandma was in a car accident that proved later to be fatal. The sad irony of these mixed coincidences became clear to me only afterwards, because at the time I was focused almost exclusively on survival. And survive I did, not only physically but also (to the extent that I myself can judge) psychologically, using a tool that one could call “anchoring” — a tool that might come in very handy these days.
Anchoring, in brief, consists of different ways of maintaining one’s connection to the world and to its enduring reality. The connection can be made temporally, to the past and the future; it can be made perceptually, to the immediate and remote environments; and it can be made intellectually, to the world of thought, creativity, and inspiration.
Here is how I anchored myself in reality during those two-and-a-half years of confinement, particularly when in solitary.
Temporally, through a very strict regimen of reminiscence, I kept reminding myself of things and events in the recent and remote past: last week this hour, I was playing with my son; last month this time, we were at dinner with my parents; last year at this time, we were preparing for our move from Tehran. The temporal reach of the memories expanded as time went by in imprisonment, but that had no effect on their emotional strength. And in the opposite direction, toward the future, I kept envisioning the day when I would finally escape from the cell into freedom. Although this was by no means guaranteed in the political environment of the time, I doggedly maintained the hope that it would, imagining the moment when I would once again tenderly hug my children, kiss my wife, and caress the graying hair of my grieving mother. These arrows of reminiscence and imagination pointed in two different temporal directions, but they served the same purpose — of connecting me to the world and to the people I loved, filling my heart with hope in the process.
After that, there was the perceptual connection with the immediate environment. I often found myself standing in my cell, leaning against the wall, and gazing at the tip of the palm tree that was visible through the small window just below the cell’s ten-foot-high ceiling. This was especially important during the first few weeks, when I didn’t even have a daily half-hour outdoor break, affording me a diluted version of outdoor scenery. Equally important were the sounds of cars speeding by, of children giggling or crying just outside the prison walls, of crows cawing in the tall plane trees, and most gripping, perhaps, of the old horse-driven carriages carrying picnickers around — all of these were messengers of hope: useful clues and connective tissues to a world that was still out there, with all its booming and buzzing, and to which I would someday return.
And finally, there were the intellectual connections to the thoughts and ideas of poets and writers — past and present, famous or unknown. At first, the wardens allowed me to read books from the prison’s library. With its minimal collection, the library provided but a very narrow range of options, mostly on the topics of Islamic philosophy, history, and jurisprudence, which I viscerally despised but which I read carefully, keeping in mind the old mantra “Know thy enemy.” Later, when I received permission to get books from home, I requested a wide variety of books on such topics as physics, language, philosophy, psychology, history, poetry, etc. I even studied German on my own, and reached a reasonable level of reading proficiency. But the biggest consolation prize was reading Mathnavi, a book of poetry by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi. I returned to it countless times, trying to commit to memory some of its verses, so I could recite them to myself. The opening lines were particularly felicitous:
Now listen to the reed-flute’s deep lament
About the ache that being apart has meant:
Since from the reed-bed they uprooted me,
My song has voiced all human agony;
A breast that separation split in two
Is what I seek, to share this pain with you:
When kept away from what they love, all yearn
For union on the day they can return.
Jodaie (here translated as “separation”) is a key notion in Persian poetry, similar to “loneliness” in American literature. Related in meaning, the two terms speak to the same human predicament, but perhaps to quite different psyches. Loneliness highlights the existential angst of individuals who find themselves, to use Robert Fergusson’s description, in “the openness, mobility, uncertainty, and flux in (what was originally) a spacious new country,” as captured in the writings of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Henry James. Separation, on the other hand, relates to the melancholic pain of someone cut off from their roots; it is an expression of severance, deprivation, and yearning. (Is it a coincidence that the first Iranian movie to win an Oscar was called Separation?) For me, the isolation of solitary confinement was more about jodaie than about loneliness. The fear of separation was, and still is, after all these years, a constant source of angst for me. My eyes betray me on this, easily welling up with tears evoked by nothing more than hearing the word jodaie in some random song.
These days, many people are going through a similar sense of separation and disconnection from the world. Some are alone, others live with a partner, a spouse, or a roommate, and still others with parents, siblings, or children. These provide different social environments, but the common element in all of them is the sense of isolation, remoteness, and solitude. People also respond differently to these situations, some with contemplation and creativity, others with bustle and activity, and still others through communication and communion. Psychologists call these diverse reactions “coping mechanisms,” but the big lesson that I learned during my solitary confinement was that no single mechanism would suffice on its own. Anchoring, in the multiple sense of finding temporal, perceptual, and intellectual connections to the world, as I’ve described it here, can be perhaps added to those mechanisms. More importantly, however, it is an invitation to seek solace in solitude.